The importance of communicating in ‘plain’ English


Eric Easson explains why it is vital to use plain English when communicating with patients and colleagues.

As dental professionals, technical terms such as composite, amalgam and autoclave are well understood and frequently used in everyday working life. However, while technical terms can sometimes be useful when discussing a treatment plan with colleagues, they are not always understood by patients.

Instead when communicating with patients it is imperative to avoid technical terms that may not be understood, and explain treatments in clear, concise English. Not only does this improve communication with patients but it can also help to avoid potential misunderstandings that can lead to a complaint or attempted claim.

Improving patient understanding

In 2018, the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges published guidance on writing outpatient clinic letters to patients. While the guidance was targeted primarily at medical professionals, it applies as much to dentistry as it does to medicine. The Academy advises that the information records relevant facts about the patient’s health and wellbeing; outlines a management plan to the patient and ultimately improves patient understating. The Academy also recommends:

  • Removing redundant words such as ‘actually’ and ‘really’
  • Using shorter sentences
  • Only focusing on one topic per paragraph.

This is consistent with the GDC’s Standards for the Dental Team, which says: ‘You should find out what your patients want to know as well as what you think they need to know,’ (standard 3.1.3) and, ‘You must check and document that patients have understood the information you have given’ (standard 3.1.4).

Additionally, the Academy states that it is important to explain any acronyms because ‘these are often incomprehensible to non-specialists as well as to patients’. Even writing the acronym out in full is unlikely to clarify things for a patient, ‘temporomandibular disorder’ is just as likely to confuse a patient as using the acronym TMD. Instead, it is useful to provide a description of the treatment or procedure for example: ‘Temporomandibular disorder (TMD) is a condition affecting jaw movement’. It is fine to use the acronym if it needs to be referred to later on in the letter. It just needs an explanation the first time it is used.

By making the effort to communicate clearly and concisely with patients in a way they understand, you can minimise the risk of a simple misunderstanding becoming something more serious – as well as giving patients a greater sense of involvement in their own care.

A few examples

The following are examples of words commonly used by dental professionals that may not be understood by patients. The first time these are used in correspondence with the patient it may be useful to include explanatory descriptions in brackets such as:

  • Amalgam – a material commonly used to fill teeth, which is silver in colour
  • Composite –  an alternative filling material, which is tooth-coloured
  • Restoration – a filling or a crown
  • Radiograph – X-ray
  • Periodontitis/basic periodontal examination (BPE) – gum disease/a screening test to look for the disease
  • Caries – decay in the tooth
  • UL5 (or another number) – the notation system used to identify teeth, in this case the fifth tooth back on the upper left of the mouth
  • Temporomandibular disorder (TMD) – a condition affecting jaw movement
  • Glass ionomer cement – a filling material, sometimes used on baby teeth
  • Autoclave – steriliser
  • Endodontic treatment – root canal treatment
  • Gutta-percha – rubber-like material used for root fillings
  • Ultrasonic scaler – instrument used to clean teeth
  • Fast handpiece – a type of dental drill
  • Burr – placed into a dental drill. Used for cutting hard tissue or bone
  • Veneer – a thin layer of porcelain placed over the front surface of a tooth to improve the colour, shape and position of teeth
  • Upper removable appliance (URA) – a brace for the upper teeth
  • Bite raising appliance (BRA) – a guard placed over teeth to help prevent grinding
  • Maryland bridge – used to replace a lost tooth or teeth and attached to an adjacent tooth or teeth
  • Dental abscess – an infection, often around the tooth
  • Rubber dam – a thin sheet of rubber used to isolate the tooth or teeth during a procedure.

To keep up to date with the latest dentolegal news, guidance and advice follow the DDU’s Twitter @the_ddu, like our Facebook page www.facebook.com/DentalDefenceUnion or download our exclusive DDU member app at theddu.com/my-membership/ddu-app.


Eric Easson

Eric Easson

Author at Young Dentist


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